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The real cultural explanation for school shootings

Teenagers raised in relentlessly competitive environments are learning a dangerous lesson

December 16, 2015 2:00AM ET

Shootings got to middle school right before I did. I was only 10 in 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 people in Littleton, Colorado, but I remember it because some of the older boys on my baseball team got a day off from school. They were already sixth-graders, and in the days after the massacre, somebody wrote a bomb threat on the wall in the boy’s bathroom. Even as kids, we didn’t feel very far from Columbine High School; a lot of us assumed we would be next.

School shootings represent a big gap in intergenerational experience and understanding. In their book “The Spiral Notebook,” journalists Stephen Singular and Joyce Singular try to make sense of an epidemic of mass violence by young American men, including but not limited to school shootings. Their focus is James Holmes, the man who opened fire at an Aurora, Colorado, screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, but they’re looking to make sense of a broader phenomenon, one that Americans my age grew up with.

“If I hear one more teenager say that he or she understands why those two kids did what they did at Columbine,” the Singulars quote another veteran journalist as saying in the shooting’s wake, “I’m going to scream. I don’t understand them.” But between the analytical and journalistic chapters, the authors interview young American adults, mostly in their mid-20s, who echo that understanding.

“These mass shootings are there to wake us up to our own worst behavior and our own involvement in the violence,” a 24-year-old graduate student told the authors. “I almost didn’t believe the news,” a 21-year-old woman said of the Aurora shooting, “but then it made sense to me in a way.” “It’s the whole society that’s in conflict with itself,” a 26-year-old said.

There’s a sense in these interviews that these shootings mean something, that they’re somehow deserved at a societal level or, at the very least, that they make sense. It’s an idea that’s widely shared among the Singulars’ interviewees, but it flies in the face of how we usually talk about attacks like Columbine or Aurora. If the phenomenon is understandable to a wide range of young Americans, then ending these incidents is not just a matter of improving mental health services or implementing gun control. Mass shootings are a symptom of a deeper dysfunction.

A lot of the young people interviewed in the book bring up video games and movies, no doubt part of the gap in generational understanding. After Columbine, cultural conservatives were quick to blame rock stars (Marilyn Manson), movies (“Natural Born Killers”) and video games (“Grand Theft Auto”). But between decency and “Grand Theft Auto,” America decisively chose “Grand Theft Auto.” Even when Holmes integrated his shooting with a film, few bothered trying to blame Batman.

The interviewees don’t draw the same causal connections that the culture warriors did, but even the gamers among them are a little freaked out by the role of violent games. “When I was in college, my roommates would come home from class and sit down and play the games for two or three straight hours,” a 24-year-old told the Singulars. “They weren’t young teenagers anymore. They were in their 20s and studying to be doctors and engineers, but this is still how they relaxed.”

We have been asked to identify with the shooter or the victim, the exceptional individual or the sheep marching toward the bleachers. It’s not much of a choice.

The problem isn’t video games per se but a particular narrative about power, violence and domination. In one of their better insights (cribbed from their son Eric), the Singulars look at two hit movies released in 1999: “The Matrix” and “Fight Club.” These movies were never really bugaboos for cultural conservatives or nervous parents; the popularity of “Fight Club” built slowly, and “The Matrix” had artistic merit and a positive message about thinking for oneself. But both stories — along with that year’s “The Boondock Saints,” which completes the dorm room poster trilogy — are about white men transforming the world according to their will, using their hands (and guns). Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) don’t have to abide by stupid rules or unfair structures. They can transition from nobodies to earthly gods through aggression and will. The most exciting parts of both movies are when the heroes remake the world like a painter with a canvas.

One 26-year-old did a good job describing for the Singulars the culture from which these fantasies are an escape: “Follow this one path all the way and you win. Follow another path and you’re nobody. The pressure to win is everywhere. It’s on top of us pushing down, from grade school on. It feels like you’re in a struggle for your survival, even if you have financial resources. My friends and I constantly talk about this. It’s a part of our daily reality.” In a society that pits each kid against the whole world for a shrinking number of success slots, shooting up your school seems like a misunderstanding. You’re only supposed to figuratively kill all your classmates.

By the time I got to high school, we were participating in active-shooter drills. At the time, teenagers in my hometown stuck to killing only themselves — as they still do — but the school wanted to be prepared. As students, we thought the drills were ridiculous, and we had plenty of time to talk about it while filing around. Teachers were supposed to put colored cards in the window to signify whether there were safe or injured people inside. (“Why, so the shooter knows where to go?”) Then we were all supposed to go to the field near the parking lot. (“If it were me, I’d put a bomb under the bleachers.”) We understood something the adults still couldn’t fathom: If someone was going to shoot up the school, they were learning the emergency procedures along with the rest of us. They were the rest of us.

A lot of young Americans have practiced being hunted by our classmates, and during the drills it’s not clear how many kids are imagining themselves on the other side of the gun. We have been asked to identify with the shooter or the victim, the exceptional individual or the sheep marching toward the bleachers. It’s not much of a choice.

The young people in “The Spiral Notebook” are ultimately asking why competition is so important and why we always have to fight one another. Those are questions that stories like “The Matrix” and “Fight Club” seem to encourage, but they are also questions that get you immediately kicked out of a “Halo” game. It’s all part of the same school-shooting culture.

The baby boomer generation of peace, love and understanding — the Singulars’ generation — is lost. Their book was inspired in large part because they couldn’t understand how a son raised by former hippies like them could understand this kind of violence. “People your age don’t know anything about this or why these shootings keep happening,” he tells them. “No offense, but you’re too old.” If America is truly prepared to change the culture of mass shooting, then we need to listen to the people who at least have some idea of what’s going on.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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